Brexit, Trump & why the rules of politics have changed

by · June 26, 2016

Police escort Boris Johnson past booing protesters outside his London home

Not looking like a winner: Police escort Boris Johnson past protesters

It seems pretty clear now that even the leaders of the Leave campaign in the UK’s referendum on the European Union didn’t believe that Brexit could win. UKIP’s leader Nigel Farage not once but twice conceded a narrow defeat on election night before the results for Sunderland indicated a much bigger Leave vote than predicted by recent polling. And Boris Johnson (who had to scurry past booing protesters outside his house the morning after the vote) has so far looked terribly uncomfortable and conciliatory in his alleged moment of triumph. Few leading pro-Brexit campaigners appear at all keen to actually carry out the mandate they have just received, and not simply because of how difficult, complicated and risky the negotiated exit from the EU is likely to be in technical terms alone.

Within the Left’s dominant pro-Remain elements, the shock has quickly turned to dystopian visions of impending fascism and angry denunciations of backward, racist and frighteningly non-cosmopolitan older working class voters who have “stolen” the future of the country’s youth (who were strongly pro-Remain yet turned out in low numbers). In addition, Labour’s inability to control its working class voters outside the inner rings of London have led to rapid moves against Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership as if he had created this problem rather than merely being a symptom of it. Presumably what Labour needed was more of Polly Toynbee’s approach: ramping up suggestions that degenerate “left behind” working class voters outside the capital were opening the door to “national socialism” so as to, er, convince those self-same voters to do the opposite.

Observed from the safe distance of Australia, the political reaction looks like a weird kind of political nervous breakdown, with growing calls for the popular vote to be ruled inadmissible or even for a new referendum to be held. In one especially unpleasant version of the argument, a popular democratic vote over an important issue is treated as a rejection of liberal democracy itself. The number of references to Weimar Germany that I have seen from otherwise very sensible friends on social media mirrors the frenzy this result has produced at the top of UK society, in its predominantly cosmopolitan and outward-looking elite circles of politicians, bureaucrats, civil servants, academic experts and financial sector employees.

But what is this anxiety actually about?

In my view we are not about to see the collapse of British society or even necessarily an economic crisis. Rather, the vote represented the failure of an overwhelmingly pro-EU elite to herd those it administers into voting the correct way. That is, the current political crisis comes from how the Brexit vote makes obvious what has already been eating away at the foundations of UK politics for decades: the hollowing out and detachment of the social bases of the political class. The EU has been a central and growing part of UK political class authority, something on which they have long been dependent. Yet here they couldn’t have that European connection approved precisely because of loss of the authority that once came from having a social base. While the vote has produced an intense crisis for the Tories, in some ways they have always had to manage internal disagreements on Europe, although they must be mortified that their “internal party discipline” problem has spilled into society like this. For Labour it is more profoundly unsettling, because it shows that the party has not only lost Scotland but now most of England and Wales.

In much the same way, the rise of Donald Trump (more on him soon) is much less important than the fact that his ability to mount a hostile takeover of the Republican Party revealed how little grip the GOP’s leaders and structures still had on their own voters.

Against and not for

Once we get away from the sledging of all Leave voters as the worst kinds of reactionaries, the parallels with the Scottish independence vote of 2014 become clearer. In each case working-class voters came out to vote in higher than usual numbers against a largely united establishment (with Labour again allying with the Tories) that was seen as representing rule from a distant-yet-hostile political centre. In both cases there was parochial localism, but Scotland’s was granted a progressive colouration while in England (and Wales, but it’s less mentioned for obvious reasons) it is seen as irredeemably insular, racist and backward-looking.

The danger was always that voters’ behaviour would be read off the politics of the leaders of the campaigns on each side, rather than those ideologies being understood as providing an officially-sanctioned frame through which to express a more basic rejection of the political class and its preferences. Thus in Scotland the Radical Independence Campaign deluded itself that it was the Left wing of a powerful new Scottish nationalism and found itself irrelevant (as “RISE”) in this year’s Holyrood elections. In the case of the Brexit vote, many are reading this as a triumph of some new far Right populism when more basic facts such as that 75 percent of MPs supported Remain were what made the disconnect between the political class and the voters so pronounced. Obnoxious attempts to link the murder of a pro-immigration MP by a fringe member of the far Right with a more general “anti-political” mood may well have sharpened that “them and us” dynamic.

Now, those who claim that working-class voters voted Leave as a protest vote against the political elites without the possibility of imposing policies more in line with their own neglected social interests are 100 percent correct. The small band of left-wing supporters of Brexit have been wrong to read into the mainly working-class vote an assertion of working-class interests against austerity (for a particularly painful but representative example see John Pilger), just as many on the Left misread the Greek “OXI” vote. The Leave vote was a vote “against” and not “for” something, which is why it is now easy for politicos to project their nightmares or fantasies onto it to score points.

The problem is that the referendum was one of the few places that it was possible to “send a message” in a way that might actually shake things up in some way, however incoherently. The implicit alternative is that those social interests should never be registered until they can be asserted in a “constructive” way; i.e. one that can be safely managed by the political system or “institutions of liberal democracy”. If one needs to grasp why much of the Left has been so hostile to the “left behind” voters — those it normally claims to stand up for — it is that the political system through which their interests are supposed to be delivered (but mysteriously never are) has been so rudely upset by the plebs.

No wonder there is now a frantic campaign to crush the impact of the vote, and perhaps even find a way out of this mess for the political class.

Trump and anti-politics

The ability of Donald Trump to snare the GOP nomination against the predictions of the vast majority of pundits and politicos follows a similar pattern. The shrillness of the commentary about him is hard to explain in the case of someone who never seems to be given a serious chance of winning anything. Many US Leftists are correctly grasping that Brexit shows the possibility of a shock Trump win in November, but the conclusion they seem to be drawing is to double down on exactly the kind of strident fear campaign that failed so miserably in the UK.

This blog’s analysis of Trump in late January, before the primaries, emphasised that he was taking advantage of the already present degeneration of the major parties in the US, which was more pronounced on the Republican side. Far from his program (such as it is) being the logical extension of a right-wing radicalisation of the GOP, Trump’s politics are a mish-mash of positions including many that would be considered well to the Left of the Republican mainstream. His key stance has been to rubbish the failures of the political class, which he portrays (Bernie Sanders-like, but with far more edge) as bought off by rich and powerful special interests and having abandoned the workers of America to look after their own interests. Of course, he has used key areas of political class failure, hypocrisy and anxiety such as immigration and terrorism to drive home his point, thus providing fertile material for the Left to, er, shout out dystopian visions of impending fascism and angry denunciations of backward, racist and frighteningly non-cosmopolitan older working class voters.

Left Flank’s argument was not about whitewashing the racial elements of Trump’s positioning but about understanding how they fit within his anti-political approach. Contra some of our Marxist critics (e.g. here and, with reference to Trump, here) this blog has never seen anti-politics as inherently left-wing. From Liz Humphrys’ and my first systematic discussion of the concept in late 2013, we have been clear that some on the Right take advantage of anti-political feeling for their own political ends. The more important point is that the antagonism between the social and political spheres they prey on is not just in people’s heads but in reality, and that this has become more apparent in recent decades with the social detachment of the political parties.

The declining ability of the main parties of the 20th century UK and US political orders to organise voters around their agendas means that the usual rules of political prediction have broken down also. For the political class this leads to an increasing frustration with voters who simply refuse to submit. Worse, it’s not like there is a clear political program that could be used to try to incorporate these voters into manageable channels. Hence the increasingly nasty view of voters and the need to ensure they cannot get away with destabilising things again. It would almost be preferable if they were all organised into a coherent far Right ideological bloc so that their leaders could be sat down in a room and negotiated with. It is the already-existing weakness of the political order, and its enfeebled connections to the society it governs, that has allowed voters to stray from the official line.

For those committed to more fundamental social change the situation is challenging, as there is no substantial revolt from below on offer to drive society in a more progressive direction. The best to come from the current state of affairs is some clarity on what is at stake. With both Leave and Trump there is nothing socially progressive to latch onto as a way forward, but there should at least come a clear understanding that lining up with the increasingly anti-democratic manoeuvres of the political class against errant voters is not just counterproductive but reactionary. This is no time for progressives to be calling for the restoration of order, especially as the causes of disorder are to be found so clearly in the airy realm of politics itself.

Filed under: anti-politics, Europe, Featured, UK

Discussion5 Comments

  1. Yes — in the vein you are arguing — I have kept saying, ‘It’s a hell of a lot more complex than is being portrayed in the media and in leftist discussions.’ I am really pleased you posted this sensible point of view — ‘To keep one’s head when all those around are losing theirs…’

  2. Nick says:

    Not sure why such a heavy denouncement of Pilger’s “painful” article, which reads almost the same as this very article – he doesn’t say that anywhere that it was a conscious act of voting against austerity at all…I also think there’s some pretty obvious socially progressive items to latch onto from Brexit, though perhaps your point is just about the Leave campaign and not what a Brexit enables?

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